The Banana Kings' Reign of Terror

The banana is the most popular fruit in the country, and apparently the most popular fruit among publishers this year. Two new books detail the history of the fruit itself and the torrid past of the banana industry, which is dominated by the ubiquitous, oppressive United Fruit Company. With similarly ambitious titles -- Bananas: How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World and Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World -- the books promise not a dull, compulsory soup-to-nuts account of the subject but a tale of corporate skulduggery, an irreversible lesson in agricultural folly and a musing on the banana's place on our collective palate. A reader may be forgiven for wondering whether the story of a simple, unassuming fruit could provide such intrigue. Have Peter Chapman and Dan Koeppel bitten off more than they can chew? No, for as both authors demonstrate with convincing arguments, the impact of United Fruit's banana on multinational corporate malfeasance, current agricultural practices and food consumption patterns is no small, sweet-smelling thing.

Chapman's scope is narrower and more direct than Koeppel's. A British reporter who has been following United Fruit since the 1970s, when he wrote his thesis on the company at the University of Sussex, Chapman has written an impressive indictment of a deeply flawed corporation. And there's no shortage of material here; United Fruit (known now as Chiquita) was truly a terrorizing company -- a kind of Halliburton, McDonald's, Nike and Archer Daniels Midland all rolled into one. United Fruit set the precedent for the propaganda, exploitation and imperialism of modern-day corporate plunderers.

In many ways, United Fruit was the original agribusiness -- if an accidental one. The seeds of the company began with Minor Keith, a young Brooklyn entrepreneur who ventured into the Costa Rican jungle in the 1870s to build a national railroad. The project cost more than 5,000 workers their lives but birthed a successful side business. In cleared areas of the jungle Keith planted banana cuttings to sell to the workers and eventually to an American schooner captain who hooked him up with Andrew Preston, the Boston importer with whom he would officially launch United Fruit in 1899. Their timing was good, as Americans were beginning a love affair with the exotic fruit that seemed the quintessence of upper-class privilege.

United Fruit was not the first company to introduce the banana to Americans, but it was the most successful in making it widely available. As the American appetite for the fruit grew, so too did the corporation's appetite for market dominance. Pursuing profits and fleeing diseases afflicting their crops, the United Fruit men skipped from one country to the next in Central and South America, perfecting their pattern: strong-arm their way in; destroy natural habitat to make way for banana plantations; enslave the native population in low-wage, dangerous servitude; suppress labor movements; watch their banana crops fall prey to blight; spray the groves with toxic pesticides that also poisoned the workforce; and, when spraying failed, abandon the land for greener pastures on which to inflict their "progress." This explains why countries in the region came to be known as "banana republics," a term first coined by O. Henry in his 1904 novel Cabbages and Kings. The behavior also earned the company an enduring nickname: El Pulpo -- the octopus. And no wonder: By the late 1920s, United Fruit was an international conglomerate, outstretched tentacles everywhere. The company owned 1.6 million acres of land, employed 67,000 workers and did business in thirty-two countries. It was worth more than $100 million and would stop at nothing to keep business humming.

The company played a major role in fomenting political unrest in countries whose policies didn't favor its bottom line. These included the 1910 coup in Honduras orchestrated by Sam Zemurray, future president of United Fruit, and the 1954 overthrow of the Guatemalan ruling government, encouraged by the corporation and carried out by the CIA. Capitalizing on the anticommunist hysteria of the day, the corporation lobbied the US government and the United Nations to oust Jacobo Arbenz, the country's president, after he expropriated its plantations as part of a vast land-reform effort. The Guatemalan coup, dubbed Operation Success, left more than 200,000 Guatemalans dead.

United Fruit's brutal tactics extended, naturally, to labor issues. Low wages and dangerous working conditions were the norm, and any attempt by the workers to assert their rights was met with harsh consequences. In 1928 thousands of striking United Fruit workers in Colombia gathered in a town square to call for a six-day week, an eight-hour day, free medical treatment and wages paid in cash rather than scrip redeemable only at the company store. Government troops were called into the square to protect US interests, and after giving a five-minute warning, the Colombian military fired on the crowd with machine guns. The strike was broken and the massacre covered up. No one knows how many were killed that day -- it's widely believed that the bodies were buried in the forest or dumped in the sea -- but a United Fruit estimate (likely low) put fatalities at more than 1,000. Gabriel Garcia Marquez drew on the event in his 1967 novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Chapman views the case of United Fruit as a moral lesson for businesses, consumers and citizens; he concludes his tale with an excoriation, chiding not only the company but also the forces -- namely, us -- that allow its familiar (if extreme) story to play out over and over again: "We continually put ourselves in a position to be surprised. We assume the best…we are shocked when it is revealed that we have been 'sold' a lie. Then we get embarrassed and try to forget, as we did with United Fruit…. Today's advocates of multinational power would have us all as banana republics."


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